The Marysville Pilchuck football team’s massive offensive line sets the tone, mauling defenders with more than 1,300 pounds of collective strength and physicality.
A bevy of ball fakes, misdirection and deception further complicates matters for defenses, leaving them struggling to decipher who has the ball.
And that all sets the stage for Dylan Carson and the Tomahawks’ backfield of home-run threats, who are capable of leaving defenders in the dust at seemingly any moment.
“You can almost describe it as like a machine,” Marysville Pilchuck senior back Jordan Velasquez said. “When we get going, I don’t feel like we can be stopped.”
The Tomahawks’ explosive Slot-T rushing attack, indeed, has been an almost unstoppable force this season.
With a senior-laden unit that’s mastered the intricacies of its run-heavy scheme, Marysville Pilchuck has trampled opponents on its way to 49.5 points per game. The Tomahawks have scored at least 49 points in 10 of their 11 contests, while cruising to nine running-clock routs.
They average 370 yards rushing per game — a number that’d surely be even greater if they weren’t resting their starters in the second halves of their numerous blowouts. They gash defenses at an absurd 11.6 yards per carry. And they’ve broken 22 touchdown runs of 40-plus yards.
“You have to be super, super disciplined on defense. And when you’re not, you’re exposed,” said Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich, whose team was one of many that were steamrolled by Marysville Pilchuck this fall.
“And what’s a game changer is (with) their guys, it’s not just a 10, 12, 15-yard play. It’s a touchdown.”
With their high-powered ground attack leading the way, the No. 5 seed Tomahawks (10-1) are making their second consecutive Class 3A state quarterfinal appearance. They travel to face No. 4 seed Yelm (10-0) on Saturday afternoon for a spot in the state semifinals.
Marysville Pilchuck is coming off a season-high 549-yard rushing performance in its 52-21 rout of No. 12 seed Garfield in last week’s state opener.
“The combination of having a really big offensive line, a premier back in the middle and then those fly sweep guys just being able to hit it so fast and so wide — it (makes) for a really, really tough offense,” said Glacier Peak coach Shane Keck, whose 4A state playoff team was another running-clock victim of the Tomahawks earlier this season.
“And then probably most importantly is that they’re all seniors. Those guys have been doing it together for a while. … And now as a senior group, they’re really clicking in all facets.”
Marysville Pilchuck’s Slot-T offense, a variation of the more well-known Wing-T, is a run-based attack that features several potential ball carriers on any given play.
The quarterback is under center, with the lead back directly behind him. A wing back typically lines up near one of the offensive tackles, along with a receiver flanked out wide. A third back is on the other side of the formation, either next to the lead back or just behind the tight end.
On most plays, the three backs run in different directions. One receives the handoff, while the other two carry out fakes or help block. The lead back, Dylan Carson, does much of his damage between the tackles. The other backs are often used on fly sweeps and other outside runs.
“You’re forced to defend the whole width of the field with their scheme,” Plenkovich said. “And if you’re over-committing to one aspect, they always have an answer.”
Between the fake handoffs and backs running in various directions, it can be challenging for defenses to keep track of who has the ball. There are times when half the defense converges on one back, while another back sprints into the open field with the ball. By the time defenders realize their mistake, the ball carrier is already well on his way to the end zone.
“That’s where we struggled,” Keck said. “We just weren’t real disciplined with our eyes and making sure our reads were correct. We didn’t do that, and that’s where they got us. But that’s why you run that type of offense, because you know that the misdirection and all the complementary plays that come off of it are gonna get high school kids to make a mistake.
“And then when you’ve got really good players running the ball and you’ve got really good offensive linemen blocking for them, it doesn’t take much for a crease to happen.”
When head coach Brandon Carson took over at Marysville Pilchuck in 2007, he and then-offensive coordinator Scott Stokes ran a Full House-T offense.
“We wanted to run right at you and play complementary football — play a bend-but-don’t-break defense and then shorten the game by running the ball and moving the chains,” Brandon Carson said.
A few years later, they added the fly sweep and began evolving into the Slot-T attack they run today. Brandon Carson said they traveled to Oregon to learn from then-Willamette University coach Mark Speckman, who is a fly sweep guru.
“The sweep has been huge for us, because it stretches guys horizontally a little bit, and then we’re able to crease you up the middle,” Brandon Carson said.
Over the years, as other high school teams pivoted to more pass-centric offenses, the Tomahawks remained steadfast in their run-heavy attack.
That even was the case when they had current NFL quarterback Jake Luton, a 2014 Marysville Pilchuck alum who started three games with the Jacksonville Jaguars last year. Though Luton threw more than other quarterbacks who have come through the program, the Tomahawks stayed true to their running ways.
“That’s kind of our identity,” Brandon Carson said. “We’re gonna run the ball.”
Luton’s time at Marysville Pilchuck coincided with that of former star back Austin Joyner, who led the Tomahawks to the 2014 3A state semifinals and was that season’s Gatorade state player of the year. With Joyner as the centerpiece of its rushing attack, Marysville Pilchuck averaged more than 40 points per game in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
This year’s offense is similarly high-scoring. But the difference, Brandon Carson said, is the Tomahawks’ backfield depth. Back then, they primarily used two ball carriers. This year, they have four capable runners — with three on the field at any one time.
“We have three backs that really can carry the ball and can hurt you,” Brandon Carson said.
The explosive backfield
Dylan Carson is the focal point of the Marysville Pilchuck rushing machine.
The hard-running star senior and coach’s son has compiled video game numbers this fall, breaking a pair of school records with 2,138 yards rushing and 41 TDs.
Dylan Carson is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, with 14 TDs of at least 40 yards and six of at least 70 yards. He’s found the end zone on a staggering 25.2% of his rushing attempts. And with his explosive burst, tackle-breaking physicality and breakaway speed, he’s averaging a whopping 13.1 yards per carry.
“He runs with aggression,” Brandon Carson said. “His pad level is really low. He doesn’t need much space to get through a crease. He’s tough to bring down. He has good short-range quickness.
“And if he sees a hole and puts it into overdrive, he’s probably gone most of the time. … He’s just a special player.”
Dylan Carson is a three-year starter in the backfield. He eclipsed 1,400 yards rushing as a sophomore in 2019, helping lead the Tomahawks to that year’s 3A state quarterfinals. He surpassed 900 yards during this past spring’s abbreviated five-game season. And with a massive senior campaign this fall, he’s approaching the 4,500-yard career mark.
For Dylan Carson, perhaps his biggest growth has come in the weight room. He’s bulked up from 170 pounds as a sophomore to 195 pounds as a senior.
“You can tell he’s been in the weight room,” Plenkovich said. “He breaks tackles. He’s hard to tackle one-on-one. And he has the speed when he gets a crease to take it the distance.”
Naturally, defenses focus much of their attention on trying to slow down Dylan Carson. And that opens up opportunities for Marysville Pilchuck’s other backs.
The speedy Velasquez is a lethal threat on fly sweeps and outside runs, with 1,046 yards rushing and 17 TDs. He averages 15.2 yards per carry and has six scoring runs of at least 40 yards.
The third backfield spot is split between junior Gaylan Gray and senior Michael Bejar. Gray has rushed for 386 yards and seven TDs, while Bejar has added 326 yards and four TDs.
“Dylan gets the ball most of the time, but he really sets it up and opens up big plays for us,” Velasquez said.
The wrecking crew
Dylan Carson and Velasquez grab most of the headlines with their slew of long touchdowns and gaudy stats. But they’re quick to deflect praise to their big, talented and experienced offensive linemen.
“I just couldn’t give them more credit,” Dylan Carson said. “Our success would be nowhere near (where) it is right now without their work.”
The Tomahawks’ bruising group of lane clearers consists of: 6-foot-6, 280-pound left tackle Kaleb Potts; 6-foot-3, 270-pound left guard Nate Elwood; 5-foot-9, 245-pound center Diego Lucero; 6-foot-3, 240-pound right guard Blake Jones; and 6-foot-5, 295-pound right tackle Josiah Frank.
That’s a combined 1,330 pounds of manpower — or an average of 266 pounds per lineman.
And the tight end spot essentially serves as a sixth lineman in Marysville Pilchuck’s offense, with senior Kaden Mallang and junior Jackson Poe splitting that role.
“They’re really good up front,” Keck said. “They’re really big. And they run really, really well.”
In addition to its size and skill, the Tomahawks’ offensive line is incredibly experienced.
All five linemen are seniors. Elwood, Potts and Jones are each three-year starters who were part of the 2019 state quarterfinal run. Lucero and Frank are both two-year starters.
“When you have three guys that have been three-year starters up there, that helps a ton,” Brandon Carson said. “Because every now and then, we’ll change some stuff up front. And those guys pick that stuff up real fast. They’re really good at adjusting to different defenses people try to throw at us.”
The most highly touted lineman is Elwood, a two-star recruit who has a scholarship offer from Air Force. Brandon Carson said Elwood is “probably one of the best guards we’ve ever had.”
Elwood, meanwhile, reiterated how valuable the line’s chemistry and experience has been.
“We’re all brothers, and every play we’re fighting for the guy next to us,” Elwood said. “… I mean, I’ve been playing with Kaleb Potts since sixth grade. We’ve always kind of been right next to each other. Sometimes, it’s just a little head nod and I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re all kind of one mind.”
The bus driver
Unlike most quarterbacks, Jace Luton hardly throws the ball. The two-year senior starter averages just 4.2 passes per game. But although the stat sheet doesn’t show it, he has a significant impact on the Tomahawks’ offensive success.
Whether he’s calling an audible, executing a fake or keeping the offense in rhythm during and between plays, Luton’s role is invaluable.
“Jace makes the whole thing go,” Brandon Carson said. “We ask a lot of him. We have some audible stuff for him to do, and he does a great job with that. He does a good job of game managing. And his fakes are critical.
“He probably doesn’t get the (attention) he should, because people like stats and passing yards and passing touchdowns. But he’s got the key to the bus here. He drives the bus.”
Elwood praised Luton — the younger brother of NFL quarterback Jake Luton — for his selflessness.
“The quarterback in our offense, they have to be the most selfless guy on the field,” Elwood said. “You’re not gonna be throwing 30 times a game. … It takes a lot for someone to kind of give up that glory or fame. The quarterback is a very important job, and Jace does it amazing. Everyone loves Jace.”
Keck even pointed out Luton’s handling of the fly sweep and how important that particular play is to Marysville Pilchuck’s offensive success.
“Luton does such a good job with handing the fly sweep so late in the motion that the fly sweep guy is getting wide so fast,” Keck said. “It makes it really challenging for the defense to catch up to speed (on) that specific play. And that causes so many errors on the defensive side of the ball, because the motion is now going so fast and it’s hard to see.
“And then if your eyes are wrong in your reads, then (Carson) is gashing you as well.”
‘We all believe’
The only team to slow down the Tomahawks’ rushing attack this season was Arlington, an eventual 3A state playoff team. The Eagles’ stout defense held Marysville Pilchuck to 233 total yards while handing the Tomahawks their lone loss, beating them 28-14 in Week 7.
But according to Arlington coach Greg Dailer, the Eagles restructured their defense a few years ago specifically for the Wing-T and Slot-T attacks they face in the Wesco 3A North. And Dailer said they’d worked throughout the season to prepare for the matchup against Marysville Pilchuck.
“You can’t stop the Wing-T by practicing for it the week you’re playing them,” Dailer said last week, prior to the first round of the state playoffs. “They’re gonna roll in the playoffs, because if you haven’t practiced trying to defend the Wing-T, you can’t get it in two or three days.
“It’s not something that we picked up that week. We’ve been working on it for years.”
Whether it’s the Slot-T, the Wing-T or the triple-option, those types of deceptive, run-heavy offenses can cause problems for opponents that have limited time to prepare and aren’t familiar with those schemes.
“When you don’t have a lot of time and you don’t see a team like them or their version of the offense very often, it makes it really challenging,” Keck said. “… That definitely gives that type of offense an advantage in the playoffs.”
Marysville Pilchuck, no doubt, hopes that proves to be the case Saturday, as its senior-laden team looks to ride its high-scoring ground attack one step closer to a state championship.
“It’d mean everything to me, to our team, to the city of Marysville,” Elwood said of the opportunity to continue this playoff run. “I’ve been playing with most of these guys since elementary school, so we’ve all kind of grown up together. And we’ve all had this dream of when we would get to high school, we wanted to do something special. We want to win the state championship.
“And so now, we have that opportunity. We’re all seniors, so this is our last year together. And we all believe that we can do it.”